Counter-Terrorism: Deniable Air Strikes


July 3, 2021: On April 13th in northern Iraq an Iranian armed (with explosives) UAV crashed in the airport outside Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region. The UAV hit a hangar in the portion of the airport reserved for U.S. military use. The target of the attack was apparently American military aircraft. At first it was reported that there were explosions but that there was no damage at the airport. This was described as another attack using an Iranian UAV provided to Iran-backed Iraqi militia as well as Shia rebels in Yemen and Iranian forces in Syria. These UAVs have been used for deniable Iranian attacks against their enemies. This does not always work out as planned.

For example, in late 2019 a mass UAV attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities launched from Iran was initially attributed, by Iran, as coming from Iran-backed Shia rebels in northern Yemen. Once the UAV models were identified, by examining debris at the attack site, it was clear that the attack came from Iran. After that embarrassing revelation, backed by UN experts, Iran became more cautious. No more attacks from Iran but more UAVs exported to proxy groups that attack targets selected by Iran. In Iraq a May 2021 attack on the al Assad military air base used unguided rockets and at least one of these explosive-carrying UAVs. The target was the portion for the base used to house American troops and none of the attacks hit the housing area.

The Erbil attack was the first-time pro-Iran Iraqi militias have used Iranian UAVs for this kind of attack. Iranian media claimed the Erbil attacks were directed at a suspected Israeli Mossad base near Erbil. No such base exists although Israel and the Kurds have quietly cooperated to deal with common threats, like Islamic terrorists and Iran. Most Iraqis knew of this cooperation and kept quiet because such covert Israeli assistance was seen as beneficial and something Iran was very angry about.

It was later revealed that hangar hit was used by the CIA for twin-engine turboprop aircraft carrying cameras and electronic surveillance equipment. These aircraft are a common sight in the Middle East and Africa and are usually flown by civilian contractors. The existence of such aircraft was no secret so Iran could have provided their operatives in Iraq with photos of them and bribed airport employees working close enough to the military section of the airport to identify which hangar this type of aircraft was stored in. With that information the Iranians could deduce the GPS coordinates of the CIA hangar and program their UAV with that information, as well as a flight path that would follow that used by commercial aircraft approaching the airport. The UAV did follow the flight path while still 16 kilometers from the airport. This maneuver limits the use of low-altitude anti-aircraft weapons because the shells might hit civilian aircraft. The only one with an air-defense system for dealing with this kind of attack is Israel, which destroyed a similar Iranian UAV that entered Israel from Syria a month after the Erbil attack. This was the first combat use of Iron Dome’s newly installed (via software changes) anti-UAV capability. The U.S. recently bought two Iron Dome batteries for use in defending American bases in the Middle East but none of these batteries have been sent to Iraq yet. The two air bases used by American forces in Iraq are at Erbil and in the Al Asad base in southwest Iraq.

Western nations, including Israel, have spent a lot of money on developing and producing AUD (Anti UAV Defense) systems. Most Western nations are concentrating on AUDs to deal with commercial UAVs operating near airports and flight paths of commercial aircraft. The United States and Israel have concentrated on AUDs to deal with commercial UAVs used as weapons in combat zones. Israel is the only nation to have developed systems that can deal with the type of militarized UAVs Iran has developed and provides to rebels and Islamic terrorist groups it supports, including Hamas in Gaza.

ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and other Islamic terrorist groups have been using commercial quadcopters and fixed-wing UAVs, often equipped with explosives for one-way missions, for years. Iran pioneered the use of larger UAVs as cruise missiles. For example, the Iranian Ababil has been around for over two decades. Development of Ababil began in the late 1980s but it wasn’t until a decade later that it was ready for regular use. Since then, Ababil has undergone several upgrades and is a favorite for deniable attacks.

Ababil is an 83 kg (183 pound) UAV with a 3.2-meter (ten foot) wing span, a payload of about 40 kg (88 pounds), a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour and an endurance of 90 minutes. The Ababil is known to operate as far as 150 kilometers from its ground controller. Ababil also has a GPS guidance system that allows it to fly a pre-programmed route and then return to the control by its ground-based operator, for a landing, via a parachute.

Used as a cruise missile, Ababil has a one-way range of about 400 kilometers. Using GPS guidance, it could deliver about 27 kg (60 pounds) of explosives to a prominent Israeli government building in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Such attacks may have been attempted but all attempts were detected coming across the Lebanese border and shot down. The Ababil normally carries a variety of day and night still and video cameras. Currently a lot of Ababils are broken down and smuggled into Yemen and perhaps Gaza as well. Iranian advisors supervise assembly and operation. Although many Ababils now use components that have no Iranian identifying marks, UN inspectors have found some identical components used in other Iranian products that are not weapons. Iran saves money by using these unmarked components of a unique design in all sorts of products. Iran denies these accusations, often blaming it on the Israelis.


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